Vikings! Un-horned and hygienic?

There is a rather comical poster hanging outside the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh; it flaunts a man on the steps of the museum entrance, dressed in Viking war attire and waving a sword above his head in that stereotypical way we would expect a barbaric man to do. This reenactment snapshot advertises Vikings! The Untold Story, an exhibition which strives to portray those pillaging warriors of early Scandinavia in a civil and industriously intelligent light.

At first I found it a little difficult to loosen my purse strings for this exhibit, worried that I could spend much less for the same information free of charge from a couple library books than pay a 9 pound non-concessionary ticket. However, upon leaving the exhibition hall, I didn’t regret spending a single penny.

When I entered the hall, my contact lenses blurred because of the contrast between darkness and illuminated information panels; this is not attractive to visitors with astigmatism like myself. Once my vision adapted, I also found it was not straightforward whether to turn left or right but if you’re a museum junkie like me, you’ll read everything anyways. I was impressed by the collection of antiquities, but even more so at the interactive panels which attract both children and adults alike. One in particular towards the exit involves cutting trees, shearing sheep and digging for iron to eventually construct a war ship – appropriately educational AND attractive!

For the 3 weeks, I’ve been researching Viking history, trying to understand their migrations, trades by sea and mythological beliefs. Vikings! An Untold Story not only provides maps of Viking movements over the centuries but artifacts found in Viking graves revealed solid proof of intercontinental travels as far as the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, as well as evidence of agricultural aptitudes, artistic craftsmanship, and an environmentally influenced lifestyle.

Did you know…

A ‘viking’ was actually what early Scandinavians used to call their expeditions, and a person who went on a ‘viking’ – whether man, woman or child, warrior, farmer or slave – was also called a ‘Viking.’

Today we commonly associate Vikings as wearers of horned helmets but there is NO archaeological evidence which verifies this common preconception. There are carvings, tapestries and ancient Greco-Roman records of Norse, Germanic and Celtic encounters which suggest that priests wore helmets donning winged birds on either side or beasts (with horns) rather than horns themselves but these were used for ceremonial purposes. The exhibition explains that it was an 19th century opera by Richard Wagner featuring barbarian warriors that forged the association of Vikings with horned helmets, yet curiously Der Ring des Nibelungen was not a performance about Vikings. Charismatic column The Straight Dope explains however that we can blame artwork depicting horns which predated Wagner’s work yet similarly appeared centuries after the Viking Age (late 1700’s to mid-1800’s).

Ships have always been symbols of Viking culture, not just for journeys, trade and war, but as the shape of graves, as tombs before cremation and the construction of land-locked long houses.

Most Vikings weren’t sailors or warriors but farmers, and their livestock (pigs, chickens and cows) were almost double the size as our livestock today.

Vikings had a strong sense of hygiene – they had combs, shaving blades, tweezers and ear picks!

Just to build the ropes for one viking ship required the tails of 120 horses.

For more information about Vikings! An Untold Story exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland:

For a comical staff report from The Straight Dope Science Advisory Board:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s